4.5 The first of Clark's planned medieval mystery series begins at a time of considerable political unrest, November 1382. After her husband's death in battle, Hildegard has spent seven years in a Cistercian convent, the abbess instructing the nun to travel to the Abbey of Meaux in York, there to request permission of Abbot Hubert de Courcy for a small priory to be purchased with funds from her marriage. Hildegard hopes to establish a small house with seven or so nuns, continuing a life of prayer and service to the poor. England is unsettled, plots brewing, the boy king, Richard, in the fifth year of his reign; as well, two popes vie for supremacy, Urban in Rome and Clement in Avignon. With a hint of events to come, Hildegard stumbles across five hung and mutilated bodies on the way to Meaux, later discovering another, a youth slain in the forest, his throat slashed. The environment both atmospheric and menacing, Clark's protégé reflects the uncertainty that has infected the York countryside, where: "The fields have eyes. None escape notice."
Leaving Meaux for her childhood home, Castle Hutton, Hildegard is fondly welcomed by her old friend, Roger de Hutton, currently besotted with his flirtatious young wife. It is Hildegard's plan to request Roger's suggestions for property she might purchase, but before she has an opportunity, Hildegard is badly frightened by a near-assault at the hands of an armed soldier. Temporarily safe in a merry crowd toasting Lord Roger, the celebration turns sour as Hutton falls to the floor, his fate uncertain. Suddenly the castle is in an uproar and Hildegard is charged with investigating Roger's household to discover what foul plans are afoot. In a flurry of misadventures, random killings, a dangerous chase and the pursuit of false trails, Hildegard and Roger's steward, Ulf, attempt to make sense of the treachery and betrayal that plagues the castle, as well as the noble birth of an heir and the kidnapping of a hostage, with any number of suspects who might have wished harm to de Hutton.
Spirited men form opposing factions in a country where many whisper stories of Wat Tyler and the reformer John Wycliff, where the young king's favor is sought and French spies infiltrate the nobility, spreading misinformation. A trusted confidant of superior intelligence and skill with the healing arts, Hildegard is perfectly placed to glide below the radar from priory to castle, watching, listening, learning. She must decide who is trustworthy and who is not, forewarned to caution by her abbess before meeting the charismatic Hubert de Courcy, whose permission is required for the establishment of her small priory. While many of the conflicts at Castle Hutton are resolved, many mysteries have just begun, including Hildegard's infatuation with the Abbot of Meaux. Hildegard is perfectly poised for whatever adventures this author imagines for her protagonist, a network of friends and potential foes, an uncertain political climate ("If the north is taken, the rest of England falls.") and a heart not yet healed from the loss of a spouse. If the rest of this series is as promising as Hangman Blind, Hildegard has a bright, if uncertain future. Luan Gaines/2009.